PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Few teams carry as much intrigue going into Spring Training as the Mets, who boast one of baseball’s best rosters -- but also some of the league’s most puzzling question marks. How might things break over six weeks of camp? Here are three predictions at the dawn of spring:
1. Edwin Díaz wins back the closer’s job
It’s entirely possible the Mets will never come out and say so, but make no mistake: the best version of this team is with Edwin Díaz in the ninth. Understanding that, the Mets are doing everything possible to make sure he’s in top form heading into the regular season, after Díaz lost his job to Seth Lugo in the second half of 2019.
This winter, club officials spent significant time fretting over Díaz, sending both pitching coach Jeremy Hefner and a team of wellness staffers to Puerto Rico. Their goal? To take the pitcher who blew seven saves, absorbed seven losses and posted a 5.59 ERA last season, and mold him back into the version that saved a league-leading 57 games with a 1.96 ERA the year before.
In Lugo, Jeurys Familia, Dellin Betances and Justin Wilson, the Mets have four other relievers in camp with closing experience; it’s entirely possible all five of those pitchers could earn save chances at various points this season. But the Mets made Díaz the centerpiece of a seven-player trade with the Mariners in December 2018 because they expected him to close, not set up. Coming into camp, he appears motivated enough to make sure that happens on a regular basis.
2. Michael Wacha goes to the bullpen
…and it might not be because of his performance. Of the Mets’ six established starters vying for five spots, Michael Wacha has the most to prove. He is the only one out of himself, Steven Matz and Rick Porcello who did not eclipse 160 innings last season (Wacha finished with 126 2/3), and the only one not to hit the 150-inning mark two years ago (he did not come particularly close, at 84 1/3). A chunk of Wacha’s trouble has been due to his right shoulder, which is why the Mets gave him an incentive-laden one-year deal, guaranteeing the former Cardinal $3 million on a contract that could become as rich as $10 million based mostly on games started.
Discussing the Mets’ rotation competition earlier this week, new manager Luis Rojas noted that Wacha and Matz both have bullpen experience -- but Matz’s is minimal. Matz is also the only lefty on the staff, which could be a tiebreaker in the club’s decision-making process. Just as importantly, he’s a rotation incumbent.
Porcello may have finished last among qualified Major League pitchers in 2019 with a 5.52 ERA, but his history suggests that was an outlier. He’s historically been the most durable pitcher of the three, and the Mets reportedly guaranteed him a rotation job when they offered him a $10 million deal.
It’s a long way of saying that, barring an injury -- and injuries are the whole reason why the Mets stockpiled this type of depth in the first place -- Wacha is at serious risk of being the odd man out.
3. Yoenis Céspedes stays limited
Don’t ask anyone at Mets camp what to expect from Yoenis Céspedes, because no one really has a great idea. Yes, he is healthy enough to run, and yes, he even released a hype video on social media. But until Céspedes actually proves he can play left field on a regular basis, expectations must remain limited. He can’t be the designated hitter in the National League, though he could be a valuable right-handed bat off the Mets’ bench -- and the club has more incentive than ever to let him, after restructuring his contract this winter.
Might a bench role be Céspedes’ ceiling, considering he hasn’t played since undergoing multiple heel surgeries in 2018? Even if he is healthy enough to start games, he’s 34 now, four years removed from his last 30-homer season. Hype video aside, it’s difficult to envision Céspedes being anything close to an everyday player -- at least not for an NL team. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a valuable player, or perhaps even trade bait. It just means tempering expectations may be wise.